The Shrine Stories podcast takes you on a deep dive behind the objects on our gallery floor.
In this episode, we look at the craft of beaded snakes. These intricate objects were among the keepsakes made by Ottoman prisoners of war during, and directly after the First World War.
Listen as Shrine Exhibitions and Collections Officer at the Shrine Tessa Occhino reveals how these snakes were made, and why.
Music: Across the Line - Lone Canyon
LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance embraces the diversity of our community and acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to Elders, past and present.
TESSA OCCHINO: I think that really understanding how it was made, just expands the amazement of the item, it just boggles my mind that someone could make this in a prisoner of war camp in Egypt in 1917.
LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast – a place where we take you on a deep dive into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor.
My name is Laura Thomas and in this episode of the podcast we’re looking at quite a peculiar craft, and that is, the art of the beaded snake.
Beaded snakes were among the keepsakes made by Ottoman prisoners of war during, and directly after the First World War
And these were no mean feat – the snake we have on display at the Shrine is about 1.6 metres long and was created with thousands of tiny glass beads.
So how were they made? And why?
Joining me to shed some light on this is Exhibitions and Collections Officer at the Shrine Tessa Occhino. Welcome, Tessa.
TESSA OCCHINO: Hi, thank you for having me.
LAURA THOMAS: So Tessa, before we get into talking about these snakes and how they were made, I was hoping you could explain the context of the conflict around this time and in a way how these people became prisoners of war.
TESSA OCCHINO: Yeah, absolutely. So First World War, the Australians are sent to Egypt, first off to train and then the first action that they see is Gallipoli. So Gallipoli is in Turkey. So they're literally fighting Ottoman soldiers. And right off the bat, people start getting captured. So I think that by the end of the war, 150-250,000 Ottoman soldiers were captured by the Australians and the British who were, you know, facing them, and they had to send them somewhere. So predominantly, they were sent to Egypt, but they also sent them to England, to Malta, to Mesopotamia, to Cyprus, and even to India. So they kind of spread them out. But mainly, they sent them to Egypt.
LAURA THOMAS: I'm curious to know why there were so many prisoners making snakes in particular, what was it about snakes as an animal?
TESSA OCCHINO: Well, it could be that snakes are a symbol of good luck in parts of kind of Southeast Europe, it could have been important to the makers, it could have been that the people who were buying them were interested in snakes, you know, Australians and British troops were the ones who usually captured them. And they were the ones who were guarding the prisoner of war camps. And maybe their, you know, interest in a snake was something that fueled that. It's possible. And also snakes, in terms of how you make a beaded crochet, is kind of simple in terms of it's a repetitive pattern. So it's just a tube, it makes it a little bit easier to make than if you're making something with limbs or, you know, structure.
LAURA THOMAS: A giraffe with a long neck or something like that
TESSA OCCHINO: Exactly
LAURA THOMAS: Was it a widespread trend that people were making these?
TESSA OCCHINO: Absolutely. So snakes were the most common souvenir bought home in terms of the beaded souvenirs that were brought home. They did also make other things. There's examples of things like lizards, or bags, bracelets, beaded bottle covers, beaded headdresses, there's all sorts of different things. But snakes are definitely the most popular.
LAURA THOMAS: Okay, and this is a million dollar question. Because I've looked at this snake. I've looked at other examples. And I can't even begin to fathom how they were made. Can you explain that for us?
TESSA OCCHINO: So, I've had to look it up as well. And there's actually a book that's been published by someone who, she even gives examples of how they've made it. It involved threading a very large number of beads onto a very long string to start with, and then crocheting the beads in between each of the little knots or stitches
LAURA THOMAS: Okay
TESSA OCCHINO: And then kind of looping it continuously around. But it involved threading all of these beads in the order that you wanted them to appear in the finished product. So they had to know what they were doing and what they wanted it to look like before they even started. And sometimes there were 1000s and 1000s of beads. There's one account from a newspaper that said that someone used 50,000 beads to crochet a 1.5 metre long snake, which could have been exaggerated by the prisoner who made it but it's also you know, I haven't counted the number of beads on our snake but it's a huge number of beads that they were going through to make these things.
LAURA THOMAS: And do you have any kind of idea about how long this would have taken them?
TESSA OCCHINO: There's a couple of accounts that said that it took a couple of months to make one very long snake
LAURA THOMAS: Wow
TESSA OCCHINO: But again, that could have been exaggerated. I don't know what the most common length of snake is the one we have, is 1.63 metres. So it's quite a long one. But there are examples of, you know, much shorter ones only, you know, 13, 14 centimetres long or even, you know, 30 or so centimetres. So it kind of varies, I guess how long it would have taken to make them dependent on the length. But, you know, they had a lot of time on their hands.
LAURA THOMAS: Exactly. Was this kind of a mechanism to pass time for them?
TESSA OCCHINO: Absolutely, it would have definitely been a mechanism to pass time, to do something with their hands, potentially, in terms of, you know, making something productive. It was also used as a bartering tool, or, you know, they sold them, the Australians who bought them home, most of the time would have bought them from these prisoners. So they had, you know, extra money for food or for goods, they swapped them for cigarettes, they sent them home. So there were a couple of different reasons they may have made them, but passing the time would have been a huge one.
LAURA THOMAS: And these people being prisoners of war, I'm curious to know how they actually got their hands on the materials, because you said that, you know, some of them have tens of thousands of beads in the design, where are they getting the supplies from?
TESSA OCCHINO: So I'm not actually sure where they're getting them from, it's quite possible that they got them from the people who ran the prisoner of war camps, you know, providing them with something to do. But it's also possible that once they started actually selling them and making some sort of profit on them, that they ended up buying more beads, and I guess creating a line of production, it's quite possible that that was what happened. But I think at first at least they were provided to them, but I'm not sure by who
LAURA THOMAS: And beyond the beads themselves what other materials were used to make these snakes?
TESSA OCCHINO: So they would have used a cotton thread to kind of be the main structure that supported the beads, and then inside, most of them are stuffed, especially if they're a bit thicker. So they would have used anything that they could find. So it was a lot of cotton scraps, fabric, horsehair sometimes, really just anything that they could find to fill them.
LAURA THOMAS: Now talk to me about the one that we have on display here. You already mentioned it's about 1.65 metres long, so it's not a little one, it's one of the larger ones. Describe it for those listening at home.
TESSA OCCHINO: Okay, so it is a kind of Goldy brown colour on the top. And then on the bottom, its belly is a white colour bead. On the top where the gold brown is, there's also a zigzag pattern in black. On the belly, there is the words 'Turkish prisoners 1917' with little diamonds in between each word that are a black and gold with red or blue accent beads. And then underneath the chin, there's an A, which potentially could be linked or has been linked by some people as representing maybe Allah. And it was a way of these people associating their craft with their prophet. There's also a lot of designs that have a triangle under the chin, which they think could symbolise the same thing potentially.
LAURA THOMAS: You mentioned the text underneath says Turkish prisoner of war was that quite a common text to have on the belly of these snakes?
TESSA OCCHINO: Turkish prisoners, not Turkish prisoners of war. So Turkish prisoners or Turkish prisoner with a year was actually the most common thing written on these snakes. It was sometimes interspersed with another design, like with the diamonds, and sometimes it didn't have a year. And the year obviously changed, depending on what year it was potentially produced. But by far the most common design on any of these snakes, which is quite interesting in itself, because it sort of suggests that these patterns to make the snake like I said, at the beginning, you had to know the pattern before you started. So it's quite possible that the sequence of beads was shared information, it was something that was shared amongst the prisoners of the camp of this is how you make this in this pattern. And so that they could all create a similar thing, especially because a lot of these are in English. And these people wouldn't have spoken English. You know, the Ottoman Empire had a variety of languages in it. It wasn't just Turkey. That's the other thing. Turkish prisoners doesn't mean that they were necessarily Turkish, the Ottoman Empire spanned through from Greece to Afghanistan, and down through, you know, to Georgia and Yemen. So they spoke a variety of languages. They were from a variety of ethnic groups, and they weren't necessarily Turkish from Turkey, they were just under the Ottoman Empire itself, who, you know, conscripted from everywhere. So the design saying Turkish prisoners, and the fact that it's in English suggests one, it was made for English speaking people. And two, that it was a shared design that was kind of maybe commissioned once and then, you know, spread amongst a lot of different prisoners to make the same thing. And there are some examples where people have actually commissioned them to say different things, which is kind of interesting. There are some that show like flags, there are some that show, you know different things. They say souvenir, for example, there are a couple that are in French, because some of these people would have come in contact with French. And there are a few in Arabic as well, but predominantly they're in English, and predominantly they're this design which kind of suggests that
LAURA THOMAS: Who donated the object that we have, the snake that we have on display here at the Shrine?
TESSA OCCHINO: Our particular snake was purchased by a gunner named Cecil Arthur Linton, while he was on active service in Egypt, and it was sent back to his family in Melbourne in around we assume 1917, 1918. And we assume that because he was actually killed in action, in 1918, in France, so would have been while he was training in Egypt, and going through before he went and was sent to France. And then the snake was inherited by Linton's niece. And then her daughter donated it to us.
LAURA THOMAS: Why do you think people should come and have a look at this object here at the Shrine? What is it that draws you to it?
TESSA OCCHINO: I think it's really beautiful. It's quite interesting to consider, I guess, how it was made is a really interesting thing to me personally, because after looking at this object, I Googled how you make a beaded crochet, you know, hollow bracelet, I guess, was what you would call it. And the YouTube video person said, Oh, yep, just string 6000 beads on'. And this was just a little bracelet to go around her wrist. And it was a very, very simple pattern. It was just a repetitive loop pattern. So it was just string the beads in the same order the whole time. But there were 6000 of them, just for a small like, you know 12 centimetre bracelet. It just, I thought it was insane that someone had worked out how to make a zigzag pattern and write words on to something like this, especially in the circumstances they were in. I think that really understanding how it was made, just expands the amazement of the item, it just boggles my mind that someone could make this in a prisoner of war camp in Egypt in 1917.
LAURA THOMAS: This is just one of the examples of art that's made by prisoners of war that we have on display here at the Shrine, what are some of the other objects that people can see when they come and visit?
TESSA OCCHINO: In terms of things made by prisoners of war, we do have quite a few things on display that were made by Second World War Australian prisoners of war in Changi camp. Some of these items are not actually necessarily art, in terms of they had a use. So for example, we have a shaving kit on display that was made with a variety of different scrap metals, and lined with what we think was the fabric from a pool table, we've got a set of teeth that someone made because they needed some, which is just crazy, really, that someone can make their own set of teeth. Then there's also examples of things like the Changi concert party, for example, was a theatre group that happened in Changi, you know, they put on different shows, for the people who were prisoners of war in the camp. And they were prisoners of war themselves. And because they couldn't, you know, get costumes or makeup or any of those things, they made them. So they made costumes out of what they had, they made makeshift makeup so that they could, you know, put on these performances and give, you know, a realistic experience, which is really interesting in itself that these people had the ingenuity to do this stuff.
LAURA THOMAS: And it seems that it's kind of a common thread that has appeared in many conflicts kind of using what you can to make something, and it's a fascinating story Tessa, so thank you so much for sharing some more insight into this beaded snake.
TESSA OCCHINO: No worries at all.
LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Shrine Stories podcast. For more just search Shrine stories wherever you get your podcasts. Otherwise, we'll see you next time.
Reviewed 09 October 2023